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Embracing Uncertainty

PhilSpecs1When we are young, I think we are all looking for certainty, and there are good evolutionary reasons for this. Unknown things can kill you. Anything from not knowing where your next meal is coming from to being surprised by a leopard hiding in tall grass can have seriously unpleasant consequences. We want to know what is out there, what we can expect, and we want to know with certainty.

Unfortunately, the universe is not required to provide what we want. In cases when it appears that it does, it’s time to step back and ask if our philosophical spectacles are distorting our perspective. We may be seeing what we want to see because we want to see it, not because it is there.

It was not until I was well into adulthood that I appreciated that uncertainty is a good thing to maintain, both for individuals and for cultures. It is, I think, a much better attitude to adopt toward life, the universe, and everything than the alternative. For one thing, it is arrogant to think we can know anything with one hundred percent certainty, whether it concerns philosophy, religion, physical reality, our romantic relationships, or the absolute best way to run a government or to make scrambled eggs.

The universe is a complex place, and we are just a small part of it. We’re an insatiably curious part of it, though, so we explore, we observe, we reach out physically and intellectually to discover new things. We ask questions and we get answers, and then we question those answers. Still, no matter how much we learn, there will always be more to discover, and no matter how certain we are of our conclusions about any particular subject, I think it is important to leave room for doubt. We must always humbly admit that we could be wrong.

Even when we are tempted to think there is no room for doubt, there is. Say, for example, your mother tells you the Easter Bunny left a wonderful basket filled with candy and colored eggs for you in the backyard. Eagerly, you look out the window. On the picnic table, you see a large, decorated basket overflowing with goodies, and that’s not all! Peeking from behind a tree is a large, white rabbit — and it’s wearing a vest, which looks a lot like a picture in one of your storybooks. It must be the Easter Bunny! She tells you to put on a jacket and some shoes and then go get your basket. You rush to your room to comply, and when you get outside, the basket is there, but the bunny is gone. You’re certain about how the basket got there, though. The Easter Bunny brought it. You have the word of someone you trust, the corroborating support of a favorite book, and the evidence of your own eyes. What more could anyone require?

Some kids might be convinced. The existence of the basket and the glimpse of the bunny provide clear evidence of both effect and cause. You, however, being a bit wiser, might remain skeptical. After all, Easter Bunnies don’t really fit well with most of your other observations about the world. Your parents might have provided the basket. The bunny could be an escaped pet. It could be a stuffed toy put there as a joke or as a willful act of deception (because parents everywhere seem to think it’s somehow good for kids to believe in all sorts of unlikely things). You might be dreaming. The wild mushrooms your mom put in the spaghetti sauce you ate with dinner last night may not have been as healthfully nutritious as she thought they were, and they are causing you to hallucinate. There are a large number of possibilities, and though they may all be exceedingly unlikely, they do exist.

Still, with the evidence at hand, the existence of the Easter Bunny might provide a good working hypothesis that you could accept as if it were true. This truth, however, should be accepted as provisional, and you should be willing to reexamine your conclusion in the light of new evidence or a better explanation. If you don’t, you, or at least your kids, are likely to be unpleasantly surprised when the Easter Bunny fails to make an expected delivery some day.

Although I suspect that uncertainty is a fundamental aspect of the universe, as well as a rational recognition of our own limitations, some adults may still find the idea uncomfortable. It is a truism that we know what we like, and we like what we know. Some may not want to consider new facts or new ideas that challenge what they ‘know,’ and they may feel no need to. Imagined certainty provides a comforting sense of security, which is a difficult thing to sacrifice for some philosophical generalization.

I think part of this discomfort comes from our instinctive need for as much certainty as possible, and the failure to appreciate that this is different from absolute certainty, which is realistically unattainable. Absolute certainty is also counter-productive.

I have observed that certainty seems to take two forms. There is certainty that the full answer to a question is already known, and there is certainty that the answer is unknowable. Both, I think, are derived from arrogance about our own abilities. With dark lenses like these in our philosophical spectacles, we fail to recognize the simple fact that we might be mistaken. When our minds close, our eyes shut, and we become blinded to new information and new ideas, unless it is to disparage them. We close ourselves to the possibility of finding better explanations or solutions to our problems. What’s the point in continuing to ask questions if we are already sure of the answers? Certainty is like intellectual quicksand. It bogs us down and prevents us from moving forward. If we are certain that our current view is the best one possible, we remain stuck where we are. It prevents us from looking elsewhere. If we have no doubt, we lose our sense of wonder and make no additional progress. There is no need for more learning and no chance of further discovery.

But how can we hope to accomplish anything if we are constantly unsure?

That’s a good question. I’m glad I asked it. In our daily lives, we act as if we are certain while knowing we never can be, at least not entirely. When I get in my car in the morning and turn the key in the ignition, I’m certain it’s going to start. It always has. I plan my day on this being true. This kind of thing, however, is the type of certainty we all accept as provisional and with good reason. Although my current car has always started, I have had others that did not.

But what of other certainties? At one time, everyone ‘knew’ that Earth was flat and had been appropriately placed by God in the center of the universe. Some were certain that a woman’s place was in the home and that Rock and Roll was evil. Most of the people who held these positions were not fringe lunatics, at least not by the standards of their time. These were prevalent beliefs held by people of power and position, acknowledged experts in their fields. Today, some experts are certain that cold fusion is impossible, that the speed of light is unbreakable, and that low tax rates on the unearned income of the very wealthy somehow improves a nation’s economy. They accept these ideas and proceed as if they are true. They may be right, although I personally am not convinced of the veracity of at least one of them. But, true or not, we must always accept that some new discovery or fresh idea can challenge any notion we may hold as an absolute truth and be willing to reconsider our cherished certainties in light of them. We must remember that understanding is a process. It’s a journey more than it is a destination.

This is how science, generally speaking, approaches things. It takes what is known, or at least what has been observed about some aspect of the universe, and it works with it to learn other things. It formulates hypotheses about how various things interrelate, which provide clues and predictions about other things. And although the scientific method has been very successful in making new discoveries, it offers no certainties, just probabilities. Some may approach 100% confidence but none reaches it. The next bit of evidence or a better theory can come tomorrow, which may cause a revision to a previously accepted idea, and thousands of scientists around the world are constantly observing, testing, and forming hypotheses to discover it. There seems to be no greater goal for a scientist than to modify or overturn an accepted theory. This is what can earn them a Nobel Prize.

Yeah, but what about the big questions science can’t answer?

This question itself implies that some things may not be testable. This may be the case for things such as the existence and nature of gods and ghosts, string theory, and the question of whether or not our dogs really love us or if they’re just faking it for the biscuits. If we’re convinced the questions make sense, there’s nothing wrong with accepting an answer as if it were true or, better yet, simply accepting that we don’t know. If it matters to us, we can make a choice about what to believe, but we should leave some space for doubt. Others may choose differently, but if we are honest with ourselves about why we prefer one answer to another, we will better understand why it works for us. We may also better appreciate why it may not work as well for others.

I’m not saying there are no “right” answers. Some are clearly better than others are in that they are consistent with what can be observed, but if we are honest about our own limitations, we will be better able to make good choices about what to accept as if it were true and change our minds when circumstances warrant. Our current understanding may be quite serviceable about a great many things, but we should never conclude from this that we know everything about anything or that our present understanding of something is necessarily much more than a useful fiction.

I try, therefore, to maintain a good, healthy uncertainty. I make choices like everyone and I would like to think they are sometimes good ones, but I endeavor to keep in mind that those choices were made with incomplete knowledge by an inherently imperfect decision maker. I may need to change my mind at some time, and acknowledging my own limitations from the start makes this easier to do.

Philosophical spectacle lenses that tint uncertainty as something positive can prevent us from becoming intellectually stubborn or philosophical arrogant. They can inoculate us against zealotry, and they may allow us to adapt more easily to new ideas and new information. Uncertainty is a good thing.

Bookstores & Paradigm Shifts

  My email circle of friends and (self-imagined) world problem solvers recently discussed the expanding role of e-commerce. As with most of our conversations, this one began with something else. One member of our august group forwarded an email of dubious accuracy, which ostensibly related humorously poor predictions of future events by people who could be considered experts about such things.

Here they are:

  • “Man will never reach the moon regardless of all future scientific advances.” — Dr. Lee DeForest, “Father of Radio & Grandfather of Television.”
  • “The bomb will never go off. I speak as an expert in explosives.” – – Admiral William Leahy , US Atomic Bomb Project
  • “There is no likelihood man can ever tap the power of the atom.” — Robert Millikan, Nobel Prize in Physics, 1923
  • “Computers in the future may weigh no more than 1.5 tons.” — Popular Mechanics, forecasting the relentless march of science, 1949
  • “I think there is a world market for maybe five computers.” — Thomas Watson, chairman of IBM, 1943
  • “I have traveled the length and breadth of this country and talked with the best people, and I can assure you that data processing is a fad that won’t last out the year.” –The editor in charge of business books for Prentice Hall, 1957
  • “But what is it good for?” — Engineer at the Advanced Computing Systems Division of IBM, 1968, commenting on the microchip.
  • “640K ought to be enough for anybody.” — Bill Gates, 1981
  • This ‘telephone’ has too many shortcomings to be seriously considered as a means of communication. The device is inherently of no value to us,” — Western Union internal memo, 1876
  • “The wireless music box has no imaginable commercial value. Who would pay for a message sent to nobody in particular?” — David Sarnoff’s associates in response to his urgings for investment in the radio in the 1920s.
  • “The concept is interesting and well-formed, but in order to earn better than a ‘C,’ the idea must be feasible,” — A Yale University management professor in response to Fred Smith’s paper proposing reliable overnight delivery service. (Smith went on to found Federal Express Corp.)
  • “I’m just glad it’ll be Clark Gable who’s falling on his face and not Gary Cooper,” — Gary Cooper on his decision not to take the leading role in “Gone With The Wind.”
  • “A cookie store is a bad idea. Besides, the market research reports say America likes crispy cookies, not soft and chewy cookies like you make,” — Response to Debbi Fields’ idea of starting Mrs. Fields’ Cookies.
  • “We don’t like their sound, and guitar music is on the way out,” — Decca Recording Co. rejecting the Beatles, 1962.
  • “Heavier-than-air flying machines are impossible,” — Lord Kelvin, president, Royal Society, 1895.
  • “If I had thought about it, I wouldn’t have done the experiment. The literature was full of examples that said you can’t do this,” – – Spencer Silver on the work that led to the unique adhesives for 3-M “Post-It” Notepads.
  • “Drill for oil? You mean drill into the ground to try and find oil? You’re crazy,” — Drillers who Edwin L. Drake tried to enlist to his project to drill for oil in 1859.
  • “Stocks have reached what looks like a permanently high plateau.” — Irving Fisher, Professor of Economics, Yale University , 1929.
  • “Airplanes are interesting toys but of no military value,” — Marechal Ferdinand Foch, Professor of Strategy, Ecole Superieure de Guerre, France.
  • “Everything that can be invented has been invented,” — Charles H. Duell, Commissioner, US Office of Patents, 1899.
  • “The super computer is technologically impossible. It would take all of the water that flows over Niagara Falls to cool the heat generated by the number of vacuum tubes required.” — Professor of Electrical Engineering, New York University
  • “I don’t know what use any one could find for a machine that would make copies of documents. It certainly couldn’t be a feasible business by itself.” — The head of IBM, refusing to back the idea, forcing the inventor to found Xerox.
  • “Louis Pasteur’s theory of germs is ridiculous fiction.” — Pierre Pachet, Professor of Physiology at Toulouse , 1872
  • “The abdomen, the chest, and the brain will forever be shut from the intrusion of the wise and humane surgeon,” — Sir John Eric Ericksen, British surgeon, appointed Surgeon-Extraordinary to Queen Victoria 1873.
  • “There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home.” — Ken Olson, president, chairman and founder of Digital Equipment Corp., 1977

I didn’t fact check any of these quotes, and I’m sure some are inaccurate or at least taken out of context, but the point of the email, I think, remains valid. It is difficult for anyone to predict what comes next. It may be even more difficult for experts in the field because they are so heavily invested (intellectually, not monetarily) in the status quo.

Of course, our email discussion drifted to computers and how none of us imagined a time when we’d need more than a couple of floppy drives and a dot matrix printer, then it shifted to what we use our computers for now, and eventually it evolved into a discussion about internet shopping.

That’s when I brought up Borders Books and its unfortunate demise. I would never have predicted it. I went there often, and the place always seemed busy. People would go there to shop, browse, seek help from polite, knowledgeable employees, or just sit and sip coffee at the in store cafe while working on their thesis or next book. I loved this place. But I must reluctantly admit that if Borders did not have what I wanted in stock, which most often was the case, I went home and bought it from Amazon.

That got me thinking – a dangerous habit, to be sure, but I can’t seem to help it. Was the closing of Borders indicative of some broad paradigm shift that extends beyond just their business model? The explanation I most often see for Borders’ failure is that they were slow getting on the e-book bandwagon. I don’t know if this is truly part of the reason. I’m sure it’s not the whole reason. A retail store that sold CDs and videos also went out of business near me and it brings me to wonder if there may be something even more fundamental underlying the issue that may affect not only other bookstores but all other types of exclusively brick and mortar retail stores as well.

A physical store has to limit its inventory because of space. This was not a problem when peoples’ tastes were limited by whatever radio, TV, and magazines made popular, and when consumer choices were limited to what major producers made available. The internet is a game-changer. It expands our options and allows us to sample different things we would never have been exposed to without it. Before the internet, many of these things probably would not have existed. They would have been squashed in infancy because major producers did not feel they fit current tastes, and people’s tastes were largely constrained by what these cultural gatekeepers allowed to become available. Of course, I am speaking mainly about books and music now, but it may apply to other areas, too.

My first experience with this was with music. What you heard when I was young was whatever they played on the radio. That was pretty much it, and it was fairly limited. I won’t say some of this wasn’t great music because it was, but a composer or band that created something different that music producers did not think they could sell easily would have little chance of wide exposure. If you didn’t live next door to these garage bands and heard them practicing, chances are you would never have had a chance to hear what they came up with.

Digital music changed this. Bands could reach out to the world on the internet. I recall the first time I heard an online recording of a song by a then fairly obscure European band, which quickly became one of my favorites. I had never heard music anything like this before. I loved it. I’m not sure where I found it, now. It may have been on YouTube or possibly provided as a link in an email from someone, but the point is that before the days of the internet, I would never have heard this. It certainly would never have been played on the radio because it did not fit an established genre and I doubt any producer would think it would ever become popular. I doubt it could be called popular now.

This is the point I’m driving at. Mass popularity may soon be an outdated idea. The things people know, believe, and like are limited by their exposure to them. With a worldwide internet, they are exposed to more, so their tastes can become more diverse.

Small publishers, music producers, and individual artists can now compete for audiences. I find that much of this ‘indie’ stuff appeals to me more than that which is cranked out by big companies. Physical stores won’t carry it. They couldn’t if they wanted to. Even if the worldwide market for it is large, it may not be big enough in individual areas to justify a carrying it in a brick and mortar store, which can only stock that which they can sell in enough volume to turn a profit. If your tastes deviate from mass market ‘pop’ stuff, the local store may not be the place for you to find what you will most like.

We are just starting to see this with books and music. I seldom find music I like in stores because they don’t carry it. Yes, they can order it (usually), but so can I. In fact, I can get it instantly by buying the MP3 album. The same kind of thing may be happening now with books.

I still shop at physical stores. Sometimes I even browse. But if I’m looking for something in particular, chances are I’ll be shopping for it online.

Positive Science Fiction – Understanding Humanity

  In my last post, I concluded with the suggestion that a realistic understanding of humanity would cast us in a positive light and that this may be one of the reasons that fiction that conveys a hopeful mood is appealing to many people. Consciously or subconsciously they may understand that this vision of humanity is closer to the truth than that implied in darker fiction in which negative human traits appear to be the norm.

In our age of instant communication and information overload, it is easy to see why people can get a negative impression of humanity. The news headlines are full of accounts of horrendous acts perpetrated by people upon other people but the important thing we must remember is that these news stories do not represent normal human behavior. That is why they are news. We hear a lot about crime, but here in the United States crime has actually been falling for at least 20 years. You would never know this based on what you see in the news. Conflicts that are resolved nonviolently outnumber those that result in war or bloodshed but they get far less attention. The events that fill the media are the exceptions and when much of our understanding about the world comes from this source, we can understandably conclude they are the norm when they are not.

Taken out of their historical context, headline stories about individual psychopaths, violent extremist groups, corrupt officials, greedy businessmen, economic disparity, hunger, disease, war, and natural disasters can shock and disturb people. And they should. That shock proves our humanity and supports the idea that people, in general, are decent. If they weren’t, such stories would be entertaining rather than disturbing.

Now the philosophers out there (pretentious buggers that they are) will object that I am taking a culturally biased position. I freely admit that. In our culture, well, mine anyway, things like peace, mutual respect, individual freedom, fairness, honesty, and the like are considered “positive” and laudable goals. Violence, intolerance, and subjugation are thought of as “negative.” But this post is about speculative fiction and how it is seen as either positive or negative by people who share my culture, which is that of people prone to reading speculative fiction.

As another bow to the pesky philosophers, let me just clarify that I am using the term “culture” in this instance to mean core fundamental beliefs and perceptions that are held by a group of people. Different groups of people have different cultures (or perhaps we should call them subcultures). In the modern world, culture is less geographically homogenous than it was in the past and any one person’s culture may be closer to someone who lives 10,000 miles (16,000km) away than it is with their physical next door neighbor. But when all humanity is grouped and all the separate cultural elements are combined, we can talk generally at least about a human culture.

But back to the point, if one’s subculture regardless of where they physically live leads them to truly believe that the world would be a better place if people who do not share their religion, nationality, gender, politics or taste in music should be suppressed or even killed, I feel compelled to say that I think human nature and the flow of history are against them but I won’t try to argue the point. Chances are we won’t like the same books anyway.

The indisputable fact is that mankind has progressed over time and continues to progress both technologically and culturally. Whether your view takes in the last 40,000 years or only the last 400 years the result is the same. It is not steady progress or universal by any means and there have been temporary declines but the trend has been toward peace, prosperity, mutual respect, and discovery. I think this is because people are fundamentally builders rather than destroyers and they are capable of rational thought and decision making if they are free to do so. The reason why this has happened is secondary though. It has happened.

Statistics suggest that this may be the most peaceable time in our species’ existence. People alive today have a much lower chance of being the victims of violence than at any time in history, or probably even prehistory. Individuals regardless of their social class, beliefs, gender, or ethnicity are almost universally regarded as having the same basic rights. Think of things not only common but considered normal not all that long ago such as slavery, genocide, the burning of heretics, gruesome executions, blood sports, debtors’ prisons, foot-binding, torture, mutilation, animal cruelty, wars of conquest, colonialism, and subjugation. Now think about how such things are considered today.

The rejection of acts such as these, which I think most of us would see as barbaric, did not happen all at once. From a historical perspective it has been fairly rapid though and each of these cultural advancements has been built on those that came before it. We didn’t go from genocide to racial and ethnic equality or from the Inquisition to religious freedom in one step but we did get there. Humanity seen on the large scale has progressed and continues to progress.

We have also made significant advances in our understanding of the universe and have used this knowledge to our benefit. I don’t think it is necessary to elaborate much on this point as it seems obvious. No one can seriously dispute that our achievements in science and technology have helped us to live longer, healthier, and more comfortable lives. Don’t undervalue things like indoor plumbing, electric lights, and microwave ovens. These may not sound significant but try living without them for a week.

People today are also more likely to survive childbirth and infancy, and recover from disease. Statistically, we are less likely to suffer from hunger, exposure, and even from natural disasters such as floods, earthquakes and hurricanes than our ancestors. These things still happen but we have learned to deal with them better.

What may not be as obvious is that there has been a significant cultural shift in the last few centuries that I think is likely to accelerate our rate of progress. We have learned how to learn, or maybe it is better to say that we have learned that we can learn. We no longer view the universe as a mystical and unknowable vastness that imposes its will on us. It is something we can study, understand and affect to better ourselves. This insight has led to us placing an increased value on widespread literacy, education, research, exploration and discovery. These types of things are valued now not just by an educated elite but by most people because their benefits are recognizable in our everyday lives. This paradigm shift is not yet complete but I think it is irreversible. We have learned that we don’t have to suffer whatever fate the universe has decreed for us. We can change it. We can make things better.

This doesn’t mean that progress is inevitable, just that it has happened and is still happening. This suggests to me that we as a species have an innate need to improve ourselves and that we are capable of doing so.

Can humanity digress? Can it return to increased violence and intolerance? Of course. This is not impossible. But the fact is that such things have decreased over the history of human civilization. If we are to extrapolate from this based on the logical assumption that the future will be like the past, we would have to conclude that we will continue to make slow and steady progress and will eventually be able to find ways to overcome most obstacles that are presented to us.

Much of current science fiction, if not fiction in general, seems to take the opposite stand, that continued progress is either unlikely or will lead to irresolvable problems. Despite the fact that history shows otherwise, these dark tales are often touted by critics as being more realistic. Clearly, they are not. Based on what mankind has accomplished and continues to accomplish, fiction that carries a positive mood and image of humanity is more realistic.

In my next post in this series, I will discuss why I think positive fiction is especially appealing to science fiction readers and why I think there should be more of it.


Related Posts:

Positive Science Fiction Part 1 – Emerging From The Dark
Positive Science Fiction Part 3 – A Better World
Why Are Good Books So Hard To Find?
Beyond Genre – Tone And Mood
Beyond Genre – Novels And Emotional Needs

Are All Humans Insane?

I gave up on TV “news” long ago but I still try to keep up on current events through the internet–probably because of latent masochistic tendencies, I suppose.  Today the headlines included, updates on the partisan political squabbling over the national debt in the U.S. Congress, the war in Afghanistan, the bombing of a government building in Olso, Norway, and violent protests in Syria.  These kinds of headlines are typical and, if I was an observer from some other planet, I’d have to shake my head and wonder why people continually feel the need to kill one another and jeopardize their future over relatively petty differences of opinion about politics and religion.  And they are — petty, that is — from the perspective of an objective outside observer anyway.  If you were a visitor from another star, you would see one planet, and one sentient species with far more things in common than the minor differences they all seem so obsessed with.  What would you conclude about humanity from news stories like these?  Are humans incurably violent toward one another?  Are they incapable from learning from history?  Are they irrational?  Insane?   I know it’s a cliché to ask why people can’t just get along, but why can’t they?  Why do they seem to try to invent ways to divide themselves from one another rather than focus on those things that unite them?  And once they pick an ideological side, why are they so reluctant to: 1) accept that it is just their opinion, and 2) consider evidence that might prove their opinion and reality may not be perfectly in tune with one another?  I may be dumb as a rock because I still don’t get it.  It’s not like in the Old Westerns, where, “This town just ain’t big enough for both of us.”  It is.  We have a whole freaking planet!  And if we could get over our apelike need to bash our neighbors heads and steal their bananas, we could have more.  We could explore other planets, although I’m sure there as some who would be opposed to that too.  Sometimes being human is embarrassing and if some little green man ever asks me about them, I’ll have to lie.  Human?  Nope, not me.  I’m from some planet in the vicinity of Betelgeuse.  By the way, could you give me a lift?

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